Description: The Closed Captioning symbol, a black frame in a horizontal rectangle, with a white television screen shape inside, displaying a pair of letter Cs.
This icon is used in North America to denote television programming that carried the accessory closed captioning signal. (I like to give artists credit, so I’ll mention that it was designed by Jack Foley, a graphics designer for that closed captioning pioneer, public television station WGBH of Boston, Massachusetts.) I’m pleased to see this icon on video boxes or in a television guide by a show listing, because it means the program is captioned, i.e. subtitled. Captions aren’t exactly the same as subtitles, although the two terms are often used interchangeably. Captions also describe other important auditory information, such as the type of background mood music, that a phone is ringing, there’s a knock on the door, or putting a musical quarter-note symbol by the words to denote that someone is singing, rather than speaking. The captions provide necessary clues to understanding the activity onscreen.
So … who cares?
Well, I do. Oddly, because I’m not the target audience for captioned television — the deaf and hard-of-hearing are. But why would someone with perfect hearing want to be bothered with what are effectively subtitles that are in the same language as the spoken words?
Well, television isn’t really about pictures. Sure, there are nature shows that are heavily visual. There are even scenes in shows like NUMB3RS or CSI that make extensive use of visual analogies to help describe mathematical or forensic concepts, but those concepts are also being described verbally. And most television shows, even with the car chases and special effects, are still essentially stage productions. It’s fairly easy to follow a telly program just by listening to it, as a kind of radio glorified with moving pictures for enhancement. This isn’t surprising since that’s from where television broadcasting originated.
There’s the notion that TV is a visual medium. Try watching TV sometime with the sound off. . . . I promise you, you will soon learn that it’s not very visual. It’s really a sound-based medium with pretty pictures to make it more effective. Without the pictures it can succeed. Without the sound it can’t. —I. King Jordan (first Deaf president of Gallaudet University)
Back in the early 1980s, if you wanted to watch captioned television (and back then, there were not a lot of captioned shows), you had to have an additional piece of electronics that would decode the accessory signal added to those shows. So as a couple of newlyweds we went to Sears and splurged on a $300 decoder set, and hooked it to the television, where it became conjoined to the vicious spaghetti of cabling from the video-cassette recorder and cable-television switchbox. We were thrilled!
Its not that hubby hadn’t more-or-less watched television earlier in his life, but with his considerable hearing loss, catching the dialog was damnably hard. Not only did he miss things, but following shows took a lot of work, so watching anything more mentally challenging than say, a football game or a beauty contest, was tiring. As a couple of people who each struggled with sound-effects muddled dialog in movies, we also became fans of old silent films that were played once a month at a local community center. (This is a bit ironic, because it was the advent of the “talkies” that caused movie theatres to lose their Deaf patrons.)
What hooked me on the captions back in the early 80’s was David Attenborough’s natural history series, Life on Earth. The captions didn’t just help clarify all those species names he tossed out right and left. They also made me realise just how much I was actually missing when the uncaptioned shows were on — I had to strain to understand, and still didn’t catch all the dialog.
I’m not the only one. People tend to assume that captions are just for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. In reality, the audience is much larger. Captions are also extremely useful to people who are learning another language, and children who are learning to read. This is because they tie together the spoken and printed words, thus clarifying both forms, while using an interesting learning stimulus that can’t be matched by the average teacher lecturing in front of a board. (English, with its agonizingly convoluted spelling, is one of the five most difficult languages in the world to learn.) As noted in the Wikipedia article about Closed captioning,
In the United States, the National Captioning Institute noted that ‘English-as-a-second-language’ (ESL) learners were the largest group buying decoders in the late 1980s and early 1990s before built-in decoders became a standard feature of U.S. television sets. This suggested that the largest audience of closed captioning comprised people whose native language was not English. In the United Kingdom, of 7.5 million people using TV subtitles (closed captioning), 6 million have no hearing disability.
Captions are also very useful to people like myself who have Auditory Processing Disorder; I have especial trouble following and understanding a speaker when there are other conversations going on or there is much background noise. Actually, many people have some degree of trouble in noisy situations, so we’re starting to see televisions with the captions turned on in busy terminals, railstations, restaurants, pubs, and other rambunctious public areas. It only makes sense — not only can viewers follow the shows better, but the set does not have to be turned up loud for them to do so, and that helps reduce the overall noise (hopefully to safer levels).
It’s much easier nowadays for anyone to watch captioned shows. Not only are a majority of the programs so encoded, but one doesn’t need to buy extra equipment. Thanks to the 1990 Television Decoder Circuitry Act, every television sold in the US after July 1993 (well, those sets with screens larger than 13 inches), will have the decoder built right in. Our $300 box is now reduced to something like a $5 chip. So if you’re out and about and they aren’t displaying captions, bug the management to simply turn them on!*
I didn’t realise just how much I had become “hooked” on accessible television programming until one day when I was on a study tour in the Netherlands. My tour roomie was one of those people who loves to have the telly on all the time (thankfully we weren’t in the hotel room much). Although most of the shows were of Dutch origin, some were from the UK. An announcer was nattering on, and when I missed something he’d said, I naturally looked up to read the caption. Being used to having such, I just assumed there would be captions. As we were now in the 21st century, there were indeed captions. But Oh duh they were in Dutch! Those weren’t captions so much as they were subtitles. Even so, I still found them useful, Dank U wel.
Given my druthers, I will always rather watch a subtitled movie over a dubbed movie. Dubbed movies don’t just look silly because the mouth action never really matches the sound overlay. For people who lipread, the dubbing is absolutely useless. For cinema mavens, the voices of the dubbing actors never really match those of the original actors, and sometimes the translations are poor.
Funny, I’m not the only one who watches English-language DVDs with the English subtitles turned on. So do our children, even when neither of their parents are around. Some of our daughter’s friends speak English as a second language, and they find the captions helpful. Both kids also like foreign films (especially anime and wuxiá martial arts films), and likewise those are much better shown in the original languages. Because our children have grown up watching everything captioned, they don’t find reading subtitles to be the least bit awkward. I like to believe that they have also helped them become better readers.
* Per the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, captions are included as a type of auxiliary aid to help ensure that disabled people can use the services of businesses and public accommodations. So, bug them!
I have been delighted to notice that more and more public places, such as restaurants, bars, airport terminals, some hospital waiting rooms or even above the patient chairs in my dentists’ office, have been turning the television volume down or even off, and turning the captions on!
This lets people talk to each other more easily, be able to catch pages and announcements, and reduces the overall noise level, while still allowing people to follow what is being said in the programs! (Tho’ this seems to be more often true for news programs than for daytime personality-chit-chat shows or sports.)